Saturday, 4 May 2013

Illustrator Interview - Sarah Warburton

This is Sarah Warburton and she is super cool, with an awesome drawing talent.  She is also very kind, because she has taken the time to answer some questions about her work and inspiration, to appear here on my blog. I hope you will enjoy reading her interesting comments and will go off to explore some of her brilliant picture books for yourself.

Thanks so much, Sarah, for visiting Susie and the Pencils and sharing your thoughts with us.

Firstly, how did you develop as an artist? 

As a small child I always drew. I always drew horses on the back of cornflake packets. I spent hours copying the front covers of my favourite books. It wasn't until I was older and saw Quentin Blake drawing on Blue Peter that I realised it could be a job! I think it was from then I decided in my heart that I wanted to be an illustrator. I never really thought in a million years that I actually would be though.

I went from A-levels to art college. At college my drawings skills weren't the best. My people all had horrible ugly faces and long noses. My colour palette was very dark and shadowy too. I thought I was being 'edgy' but really it just looked dreary. As I tried to make a living I had to make my characters better looking. I soon began drawing in a more realistic style in watercolour and ink. This honed my drawing skills but after a while I found it frustrating. It was then I dipped my toes into the world of digital colouring when a friend introduced me to Photoshop. I didn't have a clue how to use it so I used the tools like paints and just scribbled. It's this technique I use today. I found with Photoshop I could switch to using a pencil instead of a pen and this allowed my fingers to speed up over the paper. This in turn made the images I drew feel more scribbly and energetic. 

What materials and tools do you use to create your illustrations?

I've tried all kinds of materials in my time. I have a graveyard of pens in my studio which I've tried with eagerness but I have never quite found the 'fluidity' I want. So I always come back to the bog standard 2B pencil and a piece of paper. Then I scan my sketch into Photoshop and basically begin colouring in. In Photoshop I can sometimes colour the original line to a different colour which works well for me to create a softer look at times. Sometimes I also bring in a texture such as fabric, or scrunched up paper which I can use in backgrounds or clothing. This can be really fun. I also sometimes create an old fashioned watercolour wash for a sky or underwater and scan that in too. I still really love the accidents you get with watercolour and ink that you just can't recreate with anything else. Occasionally I will create a whole sketch with pen and coloured ink because I love it - but I love the control that Photoshop affords me, especially creating artwork for books where little changes can happen very late in the day.

Describe your working environment.

I have a wooden garden studio at the bottom of my garden. I love it. It has a little pitched roof and is painted in cheery blue/green with white windows. I have a wood burning stove in there. Sometimes in the winter it can get so hot I have to open the door! It's my own little hobbit hole and I love it. I have everything I need in there - my computer, my pencils, reams and reams of paper, hundreds of books, a little armchair, pinned up pictures of my own work plus work that inspires me. It does get rather messy. Sometimes discarded paper can cover the whole floor. The only thing I don't have is a kettle and a toilet. Sometimes in the winter I really hate the 30 second 'trudge' to the house to use the loo. Sometimes I work through the night, which can be interesting. I've seen badgers, foxes, shooting stars. Just lovely.

How do you tackle illustrating a new book- what processes and planning do you go through?

First, I get to read the story. Normally this can be at the early stage where I'm deciding if I want to do the book. Occasionally I've read a story that is great, but I can't picture anything in my head and I really don't feel confident that I'm the right person to do it. Although, that has happened and I've gone on to actually do the book and have loved every minute (so I can be trusted to make the best decisions sometimes!). Often after that I'll go for a meeting with the publisher. Sometimes the author is there, sometimes not. The publisher often has some great ideas of how they see the book looking and will give me notes of what they'd like the main characters to look like. Once I was told I wasn't allowed to use brown! (I have a tendency towards the darker colours). Keeping that in my head really helped with my colours and I created something really light and fresh. Then I go home and start thinking about the character. Character sketches are the most important. These have to be right for the story to be engaging and appealing. After I'm happy with a character I'll email through some sketches. After everyone agrees on what the character should look like, I begin the rough sketches for each spread of the book. This is my least favourite part as I find it so hard. My 'roughs' are the most detailed things and are virtually a black and white version of the final artwork. I find it impossible to do them quicker or looser. For me the roughs are a hard slog, but they are necessary for everyone so I don't spend hours and hours on a spread that's utterly wrong. With the book 'Mabel and Me' I was extremely lucky in that I got away with doing virtually no roughs. I did some very simple thumbnail sketches and asked if I could try a couple of spreads straight off. The publishers agreed, and I sent through each spread as I did them. It was amazing to me that they hardly asked me to change anything. It was a wonderful experience and really fresh and exciting.

Do you always get a picture right first time or do you do a lot of sketches?

That really depends on the story and what mood I'm in! Sometimes a character is just behind my fingers waiting to be drawn fully correct and right first time around. As if they've been waiting in some kind of cosmic waiting room. It's amazing when that happens, just so exciting. Then you have a nervous wait to see if the publisher and the author like it too. Other times it's really hard to find the right character and I can draw pages and pages without even getting close. I get really grumpy when it's not going well. Also, sometimes I can fall in love with a character, but the publisher doesn't feel the same and it all gets changed to look completely different. That can make me grumpy too. There have been times when I've drawn a character throughout a book but I'm still thinking "I wish he looked the other way". 

I can have mental blocks about certain spreads. Sometimes I think it looks really dull or too similar to the last spread and I can't think of how to get it right. When this happens I try lots of things. A chat with the author (if I know them well) can sometimes work wonders. Designers often have wonderful suggestions and you think "Of course!" Occasionally I'll just leave it and try a different page or a totally different project! I'm guilty of surfing the net for inspirational pictures and the work from other illustrators. However this can have a flip side in that if you're feeling a bit down because your work isn't quite going to plan, and then you see lots of images that you think are amazing - it can chink away at your inner confidence and have the opposite effect. It's a hard line to tread. The inspiration does strike eventually.

What is your most favourite project you've ever worked on?

There are so many that I've loved for so many different reasons. The 'Princess and the Peas' by Caryl Hart (Nosy Crow) was a joy to do as it was such a great story and had so much I could put in it. It was also the first time I'd tried to do a princess story with light, fresh colours. However, the princess story doesn't follow the conventional path and the story flips on its head. Really good fun to draw. 'Dinosaurs in the Supermarket' was fun purely because of the crazy Dinosaurs I got to draw. I fell in love with the bright blue T-Rex. However, if you MADE me pick just one I'd have to say 'Mabel and Me' by Mark Sperring. Mark is one of my closest friends (or should I say "My bestest, bestest friend") and in all the years we've known each other we've dreamt of doing a picture book together. The characters of 'Me,' the mouse with an inner confidence in who he is, and his friend Mabel, a girl of few words but no less confident - just struck a huge chord in me many years ago when Mark told me the idea. When I see the book it just gives me a warm glow.  It's so hard to pick just one though. Can't I have at least 5 favourites?

Are you a doggy person or a cat lover, and why? And do you have any pets?

Well, I'm a doggy lover. However I'm extremely allergic to cats, dogs and virtually all furry creatures. It's very sad. My son is allergic too. My daughter however is dog crazy and spends all her days dreaming about owning a dog. I wish one day it could come true. We do have a grumpy guinea pig who dislikes everyone, which I'm allergic to as well. Last year my daughter saved up for a hamster and to my delight I'm not allergic to him. He's hilarious, very active and loves coming out to play. I'm really fond of him. Makes me want to do a story with hamsters.....

Who are your favourite illustrators, past and present?

That's hard to list. They are so many. I'm discovering new illustrators all the time that just make me go 'wow!"

Past:  E H Shepherd, Edward Gorey, Mary Blair, Tove Jansson.

Present: David Roberts, Tony Ross, Alex T Smith, Emma Chichester Clarke, Jon Klassen, Marc Boutavant, and so many more!

What excites you most about books and illustration?

Simply finding a great story/idea matched with inspiring illustrations. Seeing or reading something that makes me so excited I want to go home and draw something. There's no feeling like that. The last time I felt like that was re-looking at 'The Moomins' display in my local bookshop. It was the black and white drawings that excited me so much. I went home to look up others on the web. I'd love to do a black, white and one colour book like that.

What is your most favourite thing to draw?

Odd animals that make me laugh. I always love the sinister dark and ghostly things. I love a bit of history and period architecture. Chimney pots and 'roof-scapes' (old rooftops and chimney pots have fascinated me for years).

What role do you feel Public Libraries play in encouraging a love of books in children?

Libraries are essential for children and the whole community. When I was younger I loved the library even though I had lots of books at home. There was something magical about the smell of the books. That exciting idea that you may be about to read the most exciting story you'd ever read. I feel that libraries are our 'Book Churches'; in that people, especially children, can come together there to experience the joy of books. Communal story time and book groups are wonderful for everyone to share ideas and enthusiasm. Sadly some children don't often have a story read to them at home - the library is a lifeline for these children's imagination.

What is your most favourite place on Earth?

Anglesey, where I grew up. As it's an island it has lots of beaches, but they differ vastly from each other. On one beach there's miles of huge soft sand dunes, and then just a mile around the corner there's a beach entirely of light grey pebbles, rock pools and a lighthouse. I love the sea. 

I also love my bed.

What advice would you give to artists wishing to work in the world of publishing?

I get asked this a lot and I always give a slightly different answer because it's a really hard question! 

There are no real rules to getting into the world of creating books. Many people come to it from all avenues through so may different ways. The main thing would be to have a passion for your market. Research your local library or bookshop. What kind of thing would you like to do? If you want to write, do you want to write a picture book, an early reader or a young adult novel? All of them have certain lengths and formats and you need to research this. If you want to illustrate, be passionate about illustration. Plenty of times I've asked prospective illustration students which illustrators they love and they can't come up with any names. If you want to work in children's illustration at least 4 names should trip off your lips with huge excitement. 

Practice, practice, practice. Don't get too set on a 'style'. A style will merely be what's natural to you. There's nothing worse than seeing such an overworked 'style' that looks lovely for one image but you can't imagine transferring it to a different story idea. I've never considered that I have a 'style'. I just draw how I draw and naturally it looks vaguely similar. I'm always looking and changing. Having a style set in stone will only limit you. 

Don't give up. I always liken illustration to how I imagine being an actor is. Lots of auditions and a fair bit of rejection. Often your peers appear to be doing better than you and vice versa. There's no linear way into the industry. Just keep going, learning and enjoying. Most importantly, keep CREATING. The more images you generate the more you can circulate out into the wider world. If you sit in your room and never draw anything or show anyone anything you won't get anywhere.

Get a copy of the 'Writer's and Artists Yearbook'. Its an invaluable resource with up to date information on publishers, agents, industry contacts etc. It's updated yearly with informative articles on the business. There's a specific one for the Children Market too.

Finally, if you could pick any story in the world to illustrate, what would it be?

Tough call, but I'd love to have a stab at 'A Christmas Carol'.

Best Wishes,  Sarah xx

Find out more about Sarah's books, and follow her blog:


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this interview and then visited Sarah's own blog and read all her posts too. Inspirational.

  2. Lovely interview! Throughly enjoyed all the illustrations.

  3. Wonderful interview, thanks so much for such full and informative answers.